The Mario Kart 64-killer started life as a generic racer and rushed out to greatness, twenty years ago.
Among Rare’s contributions to the very best games on the Nintendo 64—Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye, Banjo-Tooie—there is only one that has really never been recreated successfully. That is Diddy Kong Racing, a kart racer that was really so much more.
While there would be great FPS’ on console (even some decent Bond FPS’), and 3D platformers would take hints from Banjo’s flirtation with adventure game logic, very few games would combine racing with Super Mario 64-style adventuring, the way DKR did. You could argue racing games with wide open world structures and hidden secrets have carried the torch, in some structural ways, but no other game has really captured the feeling of DKR. And it’s been twenty years now.
The game has very humble origins. It was sort of the B-game at Rare while the behemoth of Banjo-Kazooie was in development, a humble Pro-Am branded racer with proto open-world and adventure game elements. The racing genre was chosen, reportedly, because Rare just didn’t have anything like it in their lineup. When Banjo-Kazooie was going to slip the holiday release window in 1997, production ramped up on DKR, and it would be unveiled as the “surprise” big game from Rare.
The core of the game itself was mostly done, but Rare artist Lee Musgrave told Nintendo Life: "Thankfully, the tracks were mostly done, and the pick-ups were arbitrary, made-up things. It was just kind of a rush job to change the packaging of it,” in a 2014 interview.
It got a ton of advertising push, and went on to be monstrously successful.
I have no idea what crunch hell getting this game into the kind of shape it needed to be in about six months was. All I know is that the game that Rare put out, the game I received a batshit VHS tape for in the fall, the game I opened on Christmas day 1997 and didn’t put down until… lord knows how long after, was a masterpiece.
Here’s the Nintendo Power commercial in question. It is a thing of beauty:
What made the game so special was the adventure framing. DKR was set in a colorful pseudo-open world, and you needed to collect golden balloons (the same concept as stars in Super Mario 64), which would in turn unlock new worlds. After winning races, you’d face off against a boss character (in a difficult race), and then, the silver coin challenge, wherein you’d need to find 8 silver coins on each track and win first place. Then, you could face the boss again, and it was always a stiffer challenge.
The stakes always escalated in this game. And, importantly, you were always rewarded for practice, diligent play, and knowing the territory. There was an entire sci-fi bonus world to unlock, with its own collection of tracks. Shortcuts. A complete lack of Mario Kart 64’s cheapass rubber-band AI. If you knew what you were doing in DKR, you could easily lap opponents.
Better still, there were actual secrets on the tracks, not just shortcuts. One track in each world held a secret key, which you could only find by going well off the beaten path. If you found it, a multiplayer arena would unlock for that world.
I loved Mario Kart 64. I loved its weird worlds and the places it evoked. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed the most about racing games, being in beautifully places (extra points if they are weird and visually interesting), and moving in ways that feel good. DKR took that all much, much further, by inviting you to actually explore these spaces, and rewarding you handsomely for doing so.
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I’ll continue to go to bat for Rare’s golden age, for as long as there are naysayers who insist the googly-eyed animals and cribbing the Mario playbook were signs of a me-too game company. There is simply too much to admire in the design of Rare’s best games: the level design, mechanical grace, and pacing of Banjo-Kazooie, the leaning into adventure game logic and inter-world interaction of Tooie, the brilliant, subtle genre-blending here in DKR. There’s a richness and depth to them, and a creative side that I wish we’d see replicated more often.
Diddy Kong Racing was a massive success, but, likely due to Microsoft acquiring Rare, it never appeared on the Virtual Console or in Rare Replay, aka, the giant compilation of most of Rare’s best games. There was a DS port, which may be the easiest way to experience it today, but I certainly prefer it on a nice big CRT TV.
The closest we have to its creativity and colorful, joyful tone is the Sonic and All Stars Racing series, another underdog in a genre created by and still living under the shadow of king Mario Kart. They are fantastic games, but they don't have quite the same sense of adventure or exploration as Diddy once did.
I'll hold out hope for a spiritual successor, a game that truly combines exploration, adventure, and genuinely challenging racing in a fantasy/cartoon environment. Until that day, well, we'll always have Future Fun Land.